When three of Hollywood’s biggest names came together in the small cattle town of Marfa, West Texas to film Giant in 1955, it was an explosive mix of egos, anxieties, and sexual tension.
George Stevens was tapped to direct the sweeping drama of family jealousy and rivalry on a Texas ranch starring Rock Hudson as wealthy Bick Benedict, Elizabeth Taylor as his bride, and James Dean as ranch hand turned oilman Jett Rink.
Taylor, taking a break from her failing marriage to Michael Wilding, spent her evenings drinking pitchers of chocolate vodka martinis with Rock Hudson to alleviate the desert boredom.
Sometimes they would go until until 4am but always paid the price the following morning.
Taylor later confessed she would have slept with Hudson if he hadn’t been gay.
Hudson stuck close to Elizabeth, called her Bessie and ‘told Mama all’ while taking constant abuse from James Dean, who was hot off of the film, Rebel without a Cause.
‘The status today of the three stars in Giant is historically off-kilter. Rock Hudson has faded terribly, Elizabeth Taylor has had stronger staying power, but the only actor who has survived intact from that era is, of course James Dean’, writes Don Graham in his new book Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film.
Old Hollywood legends: Liz Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson brought a mix of egos, anxieties, and sexual tension to the set of 1956 film Giant
Director George Stevens was tapped to direct the sweeping drama of family jealousy and rivalry on a Texas ranch starring Rock Hudson (center) as wealthy Bick Benedict, Elizabeth Taylor (sitting on Hudson’s lap) as his bride, and James Dean as ranch hand turned oilman Jett Rink
In one of their many intimate chats, Dean confessed to Liz that he had been molested by his minister
Stevens, Jr., Stevens, Taylor and Dean stand silhouetted against a barbed wire fence and aTexas sky
‘Dean expended all of his energy and guile in trying to usurp the film, to wrest it from Stevens and the two stars ahead of him in the credits. Yet in the erosion wrought by the years, James Dean now ‘owns’ Giant’.
And Dean acted as though he owned it then too.
Rock complained that the petulant Dean was trying to steal every scene and simmered when Dean called him ‘a fairy’.
Dean would do anything for shock value, and had a habit of urinating on the set for all to see.
The young actor was trying to keep a lid on rumors that he, too, was gay and a male hustler but he moved in with Hudson but later moved out saying Rock tried to ‘queer him.’
Don Graham’s book reveals behind-the-scenes secret of the 1956 film
The rivalry between Dean and Rock for Elizabeth’s attention became a heated battle. Liz loved them both and listened to stories of their childhoods.
When Warner Brothers announced the film Giant, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel, every major and minor star in Hollywood wanted a role in this film.
Early hopefuls for the role of rancher Bick Benedict included John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Sterling Hayden but they were viewed as being too old for the age transition in the film.
Rock Hudson, a dark horse who was a ‘pathologically shy man’ was selected to play the Texas rancher turned oilman.
Nine years earlier, Hudson, then Roy Fitzgerald, passed the postal exam and became a certified mail carrier in Winnetka, Illinois, but that didn’t stop his fantasies of being a movie star nor his realization at age nine that he was gay.
So ‘the awkward culturally illiterate Midwestern bumpkin’ slouched his 6’5′ frame to Hollywood and onto Henry Willson’s casting couch, the head of talent for David O. Selznick Productions.
‘Everybody who went with him had to sexually express himself to Henry, I’m putting it nicely,’ actor Tony Curtis said.
Actor Robert Wagner called Willson ‘grossly unethical but unsavory as well’.
That was okay with Fitzgerald who said, ‘I don’t know nothing’.
Shy, with bad teeth, largely uneducated and zero acting talent, Fitzgerald was transformed into Rock Hudson and Willson had to teach him everything, except the jitterbug.
When Warner Brothers announced the film Giant, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel, every major and minor star in Hollywood wanted a role in this film
Studio publicity flacks started showing him with his shirt off in fan mags and teenage girls turned their heads. Now he was slowly moving up the pecking order at Universal.
But he had to keep his gay life a secret because ‘in the 1950s, being openly gay was like being a Communist’.
‘Everyone inside the industry had his number but only those at one of his parties would see him dressed in a ballerina outfit twirling about the living room,’ writes the author.
At age 23, three months before shooting began, Elizabeth Taylor was on her second marriage – to Wilding – and had a two-year-old and a newborn.
She had already made 24 films and was tired of playing second fiddle to a dog in the Lassie movies, but she was still passionate about horses from her National Velvet days.
She wanted the Giant role and worried she’d be overlooked by the renowned film director who had Audrey Hepburn at the top of his list but eventually turned him down.
Grace Kelly, ‘the most important female star at the time’, was in second place but couldn’t get out of her contract with MGM so the nod went to Taylor.
The film was a major turning point in Elizabeth Taylor’s life and career. It contributed to the breakup of her second marriage and was her most successful film appearance at the time.
At the time of the film Taylor was on husband number two British actor Michael Wilding, who was 19 years her senior
At age 23, three months before shooting began, Elizabeth Taylor had a two-year-old and a newborn. Her role in the movie would serve as a vacation from her failing marriage
All Taylor wanted was to achieve stardom. She read only the trades and movie magazines, and focused on becoming more famous and having a happy marriage to ‘someone who can keep me in horses’.
Arriving on the set of Giant, ‘she had a gift for listening and sympathizing with men like Hudson and Dean,’ writes the author.
In Texas, they would ‘tell Mama all’, a line she had to deliver in A Place in the Sun.
Taylor had been courted by rich and strange men including Howard Hughes who delivered an attaché case filled with jewelry to her, married ‘falling down drunk’ Conrad ‘Nicky’ Hilton, and now she was on husband number two British actor Wilding, 19 years her senior.
What began as a ‘calm, stay-at-home interlude’ with two children in two years, evolved into what Wilding called ‘an animal shelter’ with dogs, cats and one duck relieving themselves anywhere they pleased. What kept them together was drinking.
Gossip queen Hedda Hopper had warned Taylor that Wilding was gay which seemed comical at the time.
She would later learn he had another woman in his life, German actress Marlene Dietrich, 30 years older than Taylor and too old to bear children.
Her role in Giant promised to be a vacation from the breakdown in her marriage.
On the set of the film, she was scolded by Stevens for taking too much time for her makeup and hair, and her main solace became her friendship with Rock, who she called ‘Rockaby.’
‘They talked a kind of comic southern pidgin, one saying “I daz” and the other “no you dazn’t.”
Hollywood studs: James Dean (left) and Rock Hudson co-starred in the film but butted heads due to Dean’s abusive behavior. The two had vied for Taylor’s love and attention
The rivalry between Dean and Hudson for Elizabeth’s attention became a heated battle. The actress loved them both and listened to stories of their childhoods (pictured on set)
Despite his troublesome behavior, Liz Taylor and Dean developed a close relationship on set (pictured) and he emotionally seduced her with his never ending story of ‘little boy lost’
Taylor would spend her evenings drinking pitchers of chocolate vodka martinis with Rock Hudson to alleviate the desert boredom. Pictured: Elsa Cardenas, Carroll Baker, Elizabeth Taylor and Hudson form a glamorous group on location inTexas
Taylor and Stevens fought a lot during filming and one of the worst was when he wanted her to dress in what she thought make her look like a lesbian in drag.
She exploded and he ridiculed her saying she only cared about being glamorous. Taylor then backed down.
All the sweetness between Rock and Liz was interrupted by rising star Dean, who played the role of Jett Rink, wildcatter and brooding ranch hand who strikes it rich with oil.
Actor Alan Ladd, was Stevens’s first choice, but the diminutive actor turned it down believing he would lose his leading man status and ‘that pride led to the worst decision of his career.’
Other candidates included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Burton, but Stevens decided to gamble on the ‘mercurial young actor’, who some called a rebel, others labeled a juvenile delinquent.
Dean grew up with his loving mother in Indiana but after her sudden death when he was 19 he abandoned by an emotionally distant father.
He was put on the train from California back to Indiana along with his mother’s coffin. Whenever the train stopped, Dean would jump off and ran back to see if her coffin was still there.
Hudson, real name Roy Fitzgerald (right), shot to fame with the help of talent agent Henry Willson (left), who made everyone ‘sexually express’ themselves to him
Hudson was a closeted gay man and kept his sexuality a secret until his death. Taylor would later confess that she would have slept with Hudson if he wasn’t gay
This maternal loss haunted him his entire life – and he told every mother figure.
Back in Indiana, he fell into the lair of the pastor of the Wesleyan Church, reverend James DeWeerd who encouraged boys to swim nude at the YMCA pool and introduced Dean to bullfighting and automobile racing.
Dean’s close friend and author Joe Hyams claims that DeWeerd and Dean had a ‘homosexual relationship that would endure for years.’
Between bit acting parts in Hollywood, Dean took odd jobs until he caught the eye of gay radio drama producer/director Rogers Bracket who he saw as a path to success.
Now he started moving in faster circles and changed ‘from an unsophisticated s**t kicker into an urbane and polished bicoastal sophisticate’, in Bast’s view.
Dean confided to Bast his contempt for Rock Hudson after the first day on the set with Hudson’s pose as straight while trying to hit on him.
Dean tired of being kept by the older man who loved him and viewed Bracket’s address book as a means to an end – acting parts that would lead to stardom.
‘The truth, though, is that Dean kissed a lot of a**es, and he hated this about himself. That’s why he took it out on others’, Bast is quoted.
Dean worshipped the films, A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun, told John Filmore, ‘Sh*t, man, Stevens even made Elizabeth Taylor looked good. If I ever meet that woman, I’d like to f**k her in the a**’.
Director George Stevens (right) revealed James Dean was very difficult to work with, often getting into trouble on set. Above they are pictured on the prairie in front of the false-front Reata Mansion
George Stevens shows Rock Hudson how to fight in the diner scene, with the infamous JimCrow-era sign hanging on the wall
Action: Rock Hudson punches out James Dean as Elizabeth Taylor watches in horror in a scene from the film ‘Giant’, 1956
Asked about his sexuality, Dean replied, ‘Well, I’m certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back’. He craved attention and did anything to get it.
Speeding away on his bike one day, he told photographer Roy Shatt, ‘I’m not going to live past 30’.
Warner Brothers pushed a love story of young actress Pier Angeli and Dean who broke up because of her mother – until challenged by Rogers Brackett and his homosexual narrative.
‘He was a real c*cker and an a**hole. But he was the most perfect f*cking actor for that part’ in East of Eden –’all bound up in himself with his neurotic problems, lashing out at inappropriate moments; a sulker, an a**hole’, Director Elia Kazan stated.
still was viewed emotionally as a male hustler.
Out on the endless prairie in the Chihuahuan Desert where Stephens chose to film Giant, Dean was so uptight with his first and only scene with Taylor, he could hardly get the words out.
According to Dennis Hopper who was on board as Rock Hudson’s son in the film, Dean walked off the set onto the prairie, unzippd his pants, took out his c*ck, peed, dripped it off, and zipped it up, and walked back to into the scene’.
Urinating publicly was just self-motivation to Dean.
Stevens didn’t coddle stars and ‘had little patience with erratic or rebellious behavior’.
Furious that he had to wait for three days in costume without appearing in a scene, Dean didn’t show up one day and Stevens gave him a ‘severe scolding’.
‘All in all it was a hell of a headache working with him’, said Stevens.
Not so much for Dennis Hopper who was on board as Rock’s son and was blown away by Dean’s appearance in East of Eden’.
‘Dean came to Texas wanting to be a Texan for the duration of the film, and Hopper came wanting to be James Dean for the rest of his life’.
Dean moved into a private home with actor Chill Wills and Rock but clearly Dean and Hudson didn’t get along.
Dennis Hopper (left) was on board as Rock’s son and was blown away by Dean’s appearance in East of Eden’
‘Rock tried to ‘queer’ him and when he resisted, Hudson became embittered and asked him to leave’.
But Rock was too fey for Dean who didn’t like men in drag.
Now they were both in competition for Liz’s company and no offensive act was off limits to Dean.
He jumped Rock one day and French-kissed him.
He mocked him behind his back and hanging out with local cowboys, called him Rack’.
Stevens was ‘Fatso’ and Dean ‘fought like dogs’ with the storied director trying to wrest the film from Stevens and his co-stars.
He grabbed Liz from behind when press was taking publicity photos and flipped her upside down revealing her panties.
‘She said she was glad she was wearing underwear that day’, but she was embarrassed and angry.
But she couldn’t stay angry with him even when he roped her.
He emotionally seduced her with his never ending story of ‘little boy lost’.
‘When Jimmy was 11 and his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. I think that haunted him the rest of his life. During Giant we’d stay up nights and talk and talk, and that was one of the things he confessed to me’, Taylor is quoted.
Actress Carroll Baker, who played Dean’s love interest in the film, joined him for dinner and tried out doing each other in taking down Rock and Elizabeth.
When Liz wrote a memoir and weight-loss program, Elizabeth Takes Off, she remembered the desert shoot and the ‘chocolate martini, made with vodka, Hershey’s syrup and Kahlua. How we survived I’ll never know’.
‘The heat, humidity and dust were so thoroughly oppressive we had to bolster our spirits any way we could’.
After 38 days on the desert, everyone was headed home.
Liz came down with pharyngitis and cystitis and then a leg infection that was sciatica and required the use of crutches to go back on the set on the studio lot.
Jimmy had completed filming for his role and bought himself a Porsche Spyder 500.
Warner Brothers had signed him to a nine-film contract for a million dollars and he stopped by the lot to say good-bye to Stevens before heading to let the Spyder out and take some time off.
That was the last time the director saw him.
Heading north out of LA, Dean’s Porsche Spyder slammed into a big Ford sedan driven by a college student.
The Ford made a left turn into the path of the Spyder and the driver, Donald Turnupseed, said he never saw Dean’s car.
Dean had tried to brake but he was killed instantly. He was not wearing a seat belt.
With the announcement of Dean’s death, Elizabeth had to be hospitalized and Rock shed copious tears.
‘I had been wishing him dead ever since we were in Texas,’ Rock confessed to Phyllis Gates.
Dennis Hopper admitted, ‘My life was confused and disoriented for years by his passing’ and he fell into a steady diet of alcohol and drugs that nearly destroyed him.
The cult of James Dean surfaced when the film, Rebel Without a Cause premiered in October 1955, 26 days after Jimmy’s death.
Fans didn’t believe he was dead and wrote 7,000 letters a month to the studio.
Stevens remembered, ‘He wasn’t always a joy to work with, but find me any actors who aren’t difficult’.
‘You gamble along with young people and hope their performance comes off. We gambled with Dean and we won’.
Stevens won an Academy Award for Best Director. Hudson and Dean got best actor nominations.
Don Graham’s Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film is available on Amazon.com